Bowing Down to Loss

This is the job of the living–to be willing to bow down before EVERYTHING that is bigger than you. And nearly everything in this world is bigger than you. Let your willingness be the only big thing about you.” -Elizabeth Gilbert

Preface

Elizabeth Gilbert just wrote the most brilliant Facebook piece yesterday about the grieving process, acceptance, and allowing yourself to feel the emotions of loss. This piece moved me so much, that it prompted me to think about my own reactions to loss.

Loss

When people we love are taken from us, it’s the worst, isn’t it? It’s like we have forgotten that these people we love were never ours to begin with.

No one belongs to us. And yet, when we love someone, we begin to subconsciously feel like God will never allow that person to leave our lives in any capacity. Or we would like to think that if they have to leave, that we would have some say so, or control, over how they leave us.

Sometimes those we love die.

Other times they decide to leave us.

And sometimes they may not physically leave us, but they become so different that we feel as if they have left us, because we can no longer relate to who they are.

When any of the aforementioned happens, my natural (although not productive) reaction is to try to change the situation in my mind, instead of accepting it. However, trying to change the situation only prolongs the process of grieving the loss.

Whereas acceptance, or allowing myself to feel the pain, actually causes me to move through the process.

When I was 16, my Grandma Sommers, who was a big part of my life and helped to raise me, died. She and my grandfather lived in the house behind us. I went to their house and visited them nearly everyday, up until she died.

And then I stopped.

My grandfather asked me to come over to visit as I always had. I mean, he wasn’t asking me to do anything difficult, right? All I had to do was to simply WALK ACROSS MY BACKYARD and open the back door (which he often left open) and to walk in and sit in a rocking chair next to him and listen to him tell stories. But I wouldn’t go. The thought of sitting in grandma’s rocking chair meant that I would crumble and I thought I couldn’t handle that. I didn’t want to sit in her empty chair and feel the loss.

Until one day, I missed my grandpa. And I knew he was lonely. So, I decided to visit.

It was the shortest visit in the history of visits. I maybe was there two minutes, tops. He had the opportunity to tell me about how he learned to heat up a sweet potato from the garden in his microwave, and I hadn’t even sat down, but I LOOKED at her chair, and the tears started to well up, and I told him I needed to go.

Grandpa walked me to the back door, as he always did, because he wanted to watch me walk home to see if I made it safely, without anyone snatching me up or something. He gave me a hug, and said, “We love you,” and then the tears I had been trying to hold in during those two minutes came out in a gasp–just because of his PRONOUN USAGE–instead of saying “I love you,” he said, “We love you,” which reminded me that there was no longer A WE.

Loud crying and gasping started as I ran–not walked–to my home, and closed the door behind me. I ran upstairs to my bedroom, closed the door, lied down on my bed, put my face on my pillow, and CRIED. I was feeling the loss. Finally. I was willing to feel the pain.

Each time I went to visit Grandpa Sommers, my visits lasted a little longer. I had a little more capacity each time, to accept that Grandma was gone. I was learning to tolerate the voice of grief in my head that said, “She’s never coming back. Never.” I listened to the voice. I cried. And I was willing to accept the truth.

The truth is never easy, but the sooner we bow down to it, the sooner we can have a chance to move forward.

There are so many times in my life, where grief pulled the rug out from underneath me, and instead of allowing myself to cry on the floor from the pain of the fall or loss, I jumped up and tried to grab the rug instead. Grabbing the rug leads to thinking that you know better than God. It leads to thinking you can change other people or their situations if you just work harder.

And please don’t think I’m knocking doing the work. There is a time and place for doing the work. But the process of grieving is no more work than showing up. It’s being willing to walk across the backyard and hold your grandfather’s hand for just a moment. It’s being willing to cry in your pillow every night, instead of stuffing and pretending everything is okay. You know what stuffing and pretending is? That’s depression (Liz Gilbert taught me that)– it’s not grief.

I know that grief comes and goes. And that some losses are ones that we can never completely recover from. There are losses that are simply incomprehensible to us. We wonder, “Why was this person taken away from this world?”

And yet, we somehow accept. And cry. And grieve. We do this on our knees, or sometimes alone, and sometimes in the presence of others. Some days truly suck and then you may feel better, and you have another sucky day. But you let yourself feel it all–and know that you are still here. And you are willing to feel it and walk through, to see what’s on the other side.

My grandma Sommers. (Stole this photo from Cindy Huss’ FB page).

“Well, it depends.”

One of the most bizarre things a mother can experience is that she can birth a child into the world who has a personality completely different than her own.

My mother did just that.

I came into this world, very quickly (my dad barely made it to the hospital in time) and very loudly, according to my father. I was a horrible sleeper (a trait I passed on to my own child) and sensitive and fearful. I was wired for anxiety and phobias and seemed to be driven by my emotions.

From the time I was two years old, up until adulthood, my mother spent a lot of time sagely advising me to slow down. To wait. To be patient. To think. I didn’t like that she was telling me these things, but I mostly listened because something inside of me knew she was speaking wisdom to me.

But the best piece of advice my mother ever gave me of all time was simply two words, or sometimes three, depending on how she framed it:

“It depends.”

That’s right, folks. Two words: IT DEPENDS. Sometimes she added in the extra word, “well,” at the beginning, and in that case, she said:

Well, it depends.”

If I had a dollar for every time my mother said, “It depends,” I would be rolling in the dough. To this day, she says it frequently in response to people making “should” statements that are filled with emotion. The following are a list of statements to which my mother has responded with her adage, “Well, it depends.”

  • Our culture: “Follow your heart.” Mom: “Well, it depends. Sometimes the heart is just a bunch of feelings.”
  • Our culture: “Be fearless.” Mom: “It depends; sometimes fear is there to protect you.”
  • Our culture: “Live your life with no regrets.” Mom: “Well it depends. Sometimes regret can teach us things.”
  • Our culture: “Stand up for what you know is right.” Mom: “Well, it depends. You may not be right and may just be being stubborn.”
  • Our culture: “Take the bull by the horns and act quickly and efficiently.” Mom: “Well, it depends. You can take your time and be efficient as well.”

You see??? IT JUST DEPENDS. That is what I have learned from my mother.

My whole point in sharing how my mother’s phrase has helped me, is because I realize today that it has caused me, despite the fact that I’m wired to be emotional and even anxious, to choose to be OPEN to multiple perspectives. To be OPEN to multiple ways of existing, and feeling and thinking.

And while there are definite moral truths that cannot be argued with when it comes to equality and justice for humanity–no matter who you are, where you live, or what you have done– beyond those universal truths lies the world of “It depends.”

No one has this freaking thing called life figured out. We are all going to make independent judgments based on our experiences. However, there is great comfort in knowing that feelings are just feelings and, as a wise yoga teacher once said, “I am determined to see this mountain as just a mountain. It’s not a statement on my life,” (meaning not everything we perceive as terrible that’s happening to us has anything to do with us).

Pastor Rob Bell says our culture is all treble and no bass. People get their news and develop their thoughts from what they are exposed to on social media. Through the lens of technology, we have begun to believe there are quick answers to everything. In the craziness of all of this, my mom has been my bass, my voice of reason, by asserting that we cannot depend entirely on feelings, or easily swayed by new voices simply because they sound good. It just depends.

I close with a photo of my Mom, telling everyone to chill out, because no one knows what’s going to happen. “It depends,” she probably is saying. ⬇️

Robert Earl Whitehead

Yesterday, my dad turned 77 years old. Like I said in my last blog about my mother, who just turned 79, it’s so hard to believe that my parents are almost in their 80s. In my mind, they are still like 62 or something. But as I discovered the other day, my parents are older than some of my friends’ grandparents. They are aging, and that is a reality which has somehow never been easy for me to grasp.

But, back to my dad. My dad has always been an unusual character. Out of my two parents, he’s the most like me, in personality. He’s extraverted, works better with children than adults (he still teaches Sunday School to preschoolers), enjoys adventure, and tells the most interesting stories of ANYONE I’ve ever known.

When I was a child, I remember one of my cousins describing a man in an airport she had observed that reminded her of my father.

“Did he look like my dad? Like bald and kinda short?” I asked.

“No, she said. “Not at all. But it wasn’t the way he looked that reminded me of your dad… it was the way he moved around.”

“Moved around?”

“Yeah, like he stood there with his hands on his hips, turning his head in every direction, frenetically observing everything happening around him. And his face had a look on him like this 🤨.”

Yep, that sounds about right, I thought to myself.

My dad has never known a stranger. He has always spoken to everyone about anything and everything. If my dad were a cat instead of a human, curiosity would have killed all of his nine lives before he had even made it to adulthood.

My father’s stories have always intrigued my friends and I. His stories include some of the following: the time the nuns made up a lie about him in order to kick him out of the choir in Catholic school, the time he almost drowned in the ocean when he kicked off in an inner tube from the north shore of Oahu, the time when he got fired in the college cafeteria, the time he dropped a mercury thermometer and infected large quantities of tomatoes at the canned tomato factory, the time he failed sex education class IN COLLEGE, and the time he was thrown in jail in Florida on spring break.

Despite his animated storytelling and unique way of carrying himself, he always struck me as someone who perhaps has been misunderstood. People have mistaken his kindness for weakness, his ADHD nature for being unobservant, and his sense of adventure for fearlessness.

When I was in high school, a mentor of mine told me that every nuclear family tends to have a scapegoat–the person who gets blamed for everything or is picked on more than others. Upon hearing this statement, I immediately thought of my father, and realized that he was our family’s scapegoat. Something missing? Dad surely misplaced it. Forgot the one item on the grocery list we needed? Dad’s fault. People are laughing at us? Dad must be doing something ridiculous. Happy birthday rendition sounds like nails on the chalkboard? Dad tried to sing.

Everything wrong? Dad must have done something.

And here’s the thing about scapegoats–they often play along in their role. And my dad did just that. He had no problems being the brunt of jokes or being blamed for crap for the most part. He just went with the flow.

But here’s the other thing about scapegoats–they are often misunderstood.

I want to tell you a story about my father that only I can tell so that maybe I can show a side of him that not everyone knows. When I was about eight years old, we were walking out to the car together to go to the grocery store and I said, “Oh my God!” about something, and my dad froze in his tracks. I looked up at him in that moment, and the outrage I saw in his eyes made me truly afraid of him for the first, and possibly only, time. You see, my dad would get mad here and there, but I never took it too seriously because I knew he was just pouty and a little emotional. But this time, I had apparently hit a nerve. He was angry, but he didn’t scream. He got down on his knees, eye level, and told me, “Don’t you ever take the Lord’s name in vain again. You know I don’t spank, but I will spank you for that.”

And I don’t think I ever said, “Oh my God,” until I was like 33 years old after that. My dad wasn’t strict with me (that was my mom’s job in our home,) but he was apparently strict about invoking the name of the Lord.

A couple of years ago, I gave my dad a book that had questions in it that I wanted him to write the answers to. The questions were mostly about his life, and the experiences he has had. When he was done, he gave the book back to me to have as a keepsake. I am a sentimental person when it comes to my aging parents, so I didn’t open the book up until yesterday because I was afraid it would make me cry.

But it didn’t make me cry. Instead, it made me laugh a little. Mostly, it made me feel profound gratitude for having had my dad as MY DAD.

Here are a couple thoughts he wrote in the book:

“I would like everyone to remember me as a person that loved his family and tried to do everything I could to create a happy family.

I also want people to know I tried to live a life that I felt as a human could follow the love of Christ. I also tried to make life better to others that I related to. I truly wanted to not hurt others and tried to create a life that Jesus wanted me to live.”

What stood out to me is that he said he wanted to follow the LOVE of Christ. Because an awful lot of people these days are talking about Jesus as if he were some conservative dude who supported the wealthy and those in power. I am not an expert on Jesus, but one thing I learned from my dad is that Jesus showed love to those who were OUTCASTS. To those who were poor. To those who were underprivileged and not accepted by mainstream society. To those that were the antithesis of popular and respected.

And that’s the Jesus my dad modeled his life after.

So Dad, even if you are the scapegoat of the family, one thing you can be sure of is this: you will be remembered as you want to be, because that is WHO YOU ARE: someone who loved his family, always quick to forgive and the first to apologize, and someone who loved the outcasts of this world: the homeless, the refugees, children in poverty, the drug addicts, and I could go on and on.

I learned how to love others from you. And I learned what love IS from you.

Thank you for your unconditional love, Dad.

Grace Elaine Sommers Whitehead

This past week my mom turned 79. It’s kind of jolting, because I don’t think of her as being someone who is close to entering her octogenarian years. She’s just my mom. However, she’s MY MOM. And being that I’m a mom, this has caused me to reflect on what it must be like to be my mom.

Sometimes I look at old pictures of myself from when I was a kid, and try to remember what my personality was like. I’m guessing my mom would say I was a happy and talkative child, and I was, for the most part. I liked to play outdoors in the dirt, ride my tricycle, talk to the neighbors, and play in the sandbox. I also liked to pretend I had imaginary friends and even children. One day I told my mom that I had two daughters–one named Ruthie (after my grandma who I was obsessed with) and Crouton (after my favorite salad bar topping-BECAUSE WHO DOESN’T LOVE SEASONED BREAD?!). I was creative and liked to color and draw and watch the birds at the bird feeder.

My mom would sit at the foot of my bed every night until I fell asleep. We said bedtime prayers, and she helped me to learn how to pray. She cooked healthy food for us, and we always ate at the table.

(God, I should stop reminiscing because this is actually making me think about all the ways I’ve failed as a parent.)

But before I stop, I must mention one more thing.

I remember lying in bed in my childhood bedroom. Only I wasn’t a child anymore. I was 30 years old. My mom had pulled the curtains up, in hopes that I would feel the sunshine. It was springtime and it was beautiful weather. And yet, I couldn’t stop crying, and I couldn’t get out of bed. I knew my parents were concerned, but every time they tried to speak to me, I either cried or shut down. And all I remember thinking was, why can’t I just enjoy the sunshine? There are actual people who are getting up with the sun and going outside and living their lives and going to the grocery store and shit. And getting up to go pee was overwhelming to me. Eating was overwhelming to me. Showering was overwhelming to me.

I felt like I was getting evicted from my own life. This was during my second separation from my husband. Things were crumbling and I did not want to surrender. What I didn’t yet understand was that, as Glennon always says, nobody gets evicted from his or her life unless she is being called to a truer, deeper life. Rock bottom is always an invitation to something else- something even more authentic and beautiful.

My mother came into my bedroom. She sat down on my bed. She told me she had baked some homemade bread and had fresh strawberry jam, made with strawberries from our garden. While my mother is an incredible cook, it was very out of character for her to make homemade bread. I looked at her, perplexed. But then I knew: she’s trying to get me to eat AND baking may be her way of coping with the fact that her child is feeling hopeless and not eating or sleeping.

She convinced me to eat a piece of bread. She brought it upstairs to me and sat on my bed. I put the bread in my mouth and could tell it was nearly a perfect tasting piece of bread, so I began to chew it, even though I wasn’t enjoying the process of eating. Every time I swallowed food, it went into the pit of my stomach and I thought would vomit. But I didn’t vomit. So I continued to slowly and thoroughly chew the bread in my mouth so that I could nourish my body at least.

“I’ve been thinking,” my mother suddenly said, “about you.”

I sat up in bed. She had my attention.

“I have this vision of you in my mind. You are an exquisite, beautiful flower. And yet, you’ve been buried for so long under the dirt. The ground above you is hard and cracked, and the soil is not good. However, you continue to grow and you will soon sprout above this ground that is holding you back–this ground that has held you down for so many years, and you will begin to bloom. And you’re just the most beautiful flower. You’re becoming yourself and you’re stunning. You are going to bloom and break free.”

I looked at her in awe, because she was envisioning things for me that I simply couldn’t see. But what she said–her words–were so intricate and fascinating, that it drew me in.

Everyone has always loved my mother. At times I resented this, because I didn’t like sharing her. I would get jealous and hide for attention or act out (when I was a child, to clarify-not last week 😜). But now I know why people are so drawn to her-it’s because she showed up for them, and never fell apart. It’s because she’s a vault when it comes to trust. My mother has exhibited grace under pressure, time and time again. When others are stressed, she remains serious. When people are crying and crushed, she responds with compassion. That’s why people love her.

So that is my mother. She is a believer in things that dwell in truth and possibility. Happy birthday, Mom.

ONE. DUMB. CLASS.

This is the story of the day I began to believe I was not a writer.

I was 21 years old, and almost halfway through my junior year in college. I went to a small, private college with less than a thousand students. On this particular day, I walked across the student union, my footsteps echoing behind me. 

The thing I liked best about the union were the echoes of my feet shuffling and the reverberating voices of friends you could hear as you walked through. I have a memory of a day my mom and I walked through the union during winter break when no one was around, and we sang the hymn, “Trust and Obey,” acapella. She sang soprano and I sang alto. Our echoing song gave me chills. 

But, I digress. On this particular day that I formed my belief that I wasn’t a writer, there were no songs and no happy voices that I remember. All I remember was walking over to my mailbox in the union, turning the key, and anxiously pulling out the paper I had written for British Literature, Second Survey. 

This paper had a big, fat, ugly, red C written on it at the top. 

My heart began to race. This was my third C on a paper in this English class, AND I WAS AN ENGLISH MAJOR FOR GOD’S SAKE! I was an honor roll student–NOT a C student, and I couldn’t bear the thought of committing myself to a field where I was not excelling. I felt a mix of anxiety and anger, as I clutched the paper close to me. 

I decided to do what I always did in college when I was freaking out:  I RAN. 

I didn’t even know where the heck I was running to. I just carelessly sprinted across campus, becoming more winded by the second, as I breathed in the blustery air of Northern Indiana. 

As I reached the other end of campus, I looked up and saw Shoup House. 

Shoup House was not my campus house. But it was a house where a few of my friends lived. One of those friends was an English major. 

“Becca!” I shouted. “I’m going to see Becca,” as if my subconscious knew where I was headed all along.

I ran in, sped up the wooden stairway, where I was greeted at the top by Becca and two of my friends. They quickly noticed I was not there for just a friendly chat. I was there because I was having a moment

“Damn that son of a bitch!! 😡” I yelled, throwing my paper on the floor. 

The girls quickly realized the “son of a bitch” I was referring to was Professor Tom David. Professor David was young, cool, and some girls even thought he was hot. (Gag.) His muscles and boyish good looks appeared fake to me, just like his neatly coifed hair.  During my sophomore and junior years of college, Tom was unfortunately teaching a larger number of classes than normal for the English department, since two other professors were on sabbatical, as I remember. 

Every English class with Professor David was PAINFUL. My upper level English classes typically had anywhere from 15-20 students in them. Tom displayed an obvious favoritism for the outspoken hipster students in the class from day 1. He would start anecdotes with, “Last night I was at the Electric Brew, having coffee with Caitlin and Brad, and we got into this really interesting conversation about the use of imagery in William Carlos Williams’ poetry…” And I would be forced to listen to him name drop the names of the “cool kids” throughout a story that had NOTHING to do with William Carlos Williams.

I simply could not compete with the Caitlins and the Brads. They were badass,  cool, confident, highly-favored hipsters. They loved Tom, despite his preppy cardigans and argyle sweaters, and he loved them.

The non-hipsters in the class, me and my friend, Michelle, sat off to the side in class, furiously taking notes. Todd never called on us, and may have even forgotten we were there, until one of us had the courage to timidly raise our hand, with our voice shaking, heart palpitating, and finally saying, “Um, I think that T.S. Eliot’s use of the objective correlative in British literature is actually used by a lot of screenwriters nowadays,” and mid-sentence we would suddenly realize that Tom David DIDN’T EVEN GIVE A SHIT, and wasn’t listening to what we were saying. And so we would suddenly forget the very important, courageous thing we were trying to say, and end up stuttering as we looked around the room at people who refused to make eye contact. 

And then, eventually, we stopped speaking in his classes. Like totally. We became selective mutes, since we grew  tired of his disdain for us. 

We were also tired of feeling knocked down. Tired of feeling not enough. I was doing everything I could to write a good English paper, but I continued to receive Cs that were covered with negative, red slashes all over my paper. 

I felt like my identity as a writer was being stripped away. 

I had been working as the student manager/director of the writing center at my college. I was responsible for tutoring several students to write papers. I was helping them succeed. Yet, I couldn’t seem to catch a break myself. I felt like a fraud

And this feeling was enough to cause me  to withdraw from my English classes at college and drop my English major, even though I was one class away from completing it. ONE. DUMB. CLASS. With dumb Tom David. And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. 

Not only that, I stopped writing completely. I didn’t write anything substantial for sixteen years. And for sixteen years I felt a certain degree of emptiness–an emptiness that haunts you when you aren’t fully doing what you were meant to do. 

You guys, 

that.

is.

scary. 

It’s scary because I let one person–one teacher–have that kind of effect on my life. And it shows how we, as teachers, play a major role in how our students view themselves.

Tom David (as far as I could assess in my 21 year old brain) thought I couldn’t do it–I couldn’t write a paper worthy of his intellectual time or a decent grade. He showed me through his body language that my comments in class were not worthy of even being acknowledged. 

And I believed him. Even though he was ONE PERSON. 

He was my teacher. And now that I’m a teacher myself, I try to remind myself of this experience as much as possible, because it keeps me focused on the task at hand: teaching my students to BELIEVE they can GROW academically in their abilities.

If I don’t believe that, how will they?

I have the opportunity to show my students that the most important part of learning is growth. I modify instruction and student work, while looking at students’ data over time. Each child is unique and has a specific set of challenges and abilities. As they grow and improve through hard work and practice, they gain self confidence. 
Oh my god, I think I need to say that again. 

As they grow and improve through hard work and practice, they gain self confidence. 

That, right there, ⬆️ was a difficult lesson for me to learn. I dropped my English major when it got difficult, because I didn’t know that I could improve anymore. 

Anyone will quit something he thinks he sucks at, if he doesn’t believe he can improve. Anyone–adult or child.

Now, I don’t blame Tom David for my decision to quit my English classes. I was the quitter. I was the one who gave up. I was so intimidated by him that I didn’t ask for help, nor did I get a tutor, because I was too proud. That was my choice, and I learned from it. 

And what I learned is actually invaluable–I learned that I have INCREDIBLE power as an educator to help my students develop beliefs about themselves–beliefs that can set them on a positive trajectory for life. And the first belief I want to instill is that it is through hard work–not just being smart, that one accomplishes the work that he or she was born to do. ❤️

Me (in the red) and a bunch of other non-English major college peeps, doing our non-English major thing.

I Don’t Have a Model

I was talking to these hooligans, a.k.a, my parents on the phone a couple of nights ago.

   

My dad said, “I wish you would just call us more and respond quicker to our emails.”

This may seem like a guilt-trip statement, but it’s not. You see, my dad’s not really a guilt trippy type of person. He’s just honest and speaks from the heart. 

I felt a twinge of something–maybe guilt, sadness, inadequacy–when my dad said this. Because he’s right. I don’t respond efficiently enough. And these are people who deserve to hear from me. These are people who REALLY love me. 

So it got me thinking about a couple of different things. The first thing it got me thinking about is the fact that I still feel kinda overwhelmed by this single parenting thing at times. It’s consuming.  And the second thing it got me thinking about is that I am so overwhelmed by my “to do list” that I have unfortunately neglected those who are most important to me.

When you know someone will always be there, you sometimes forget how important that relationship is to you. And  I do NOT want to be like that. Because at the end of the day, there are a handful of individuals in my life who know me deeply and are committed to loving me. And while I have A LOT of responsibilities on my plate, I want to make it a practice to invest in those relationships. 

So that ⬆️ was the second thing I thought about. Now back to the first: 

Being a single parent is consuming. 

I DON’T HAVE A MODEL for this single parenting thing. My whole family consists of married couples. I have tried to not think about this too much, because it’s, quite frankly, an overwhelming thought, which can lead to negative self talk like, “What the heck are you doing? I mean, seriously, no wonder you have motherhood-induced ADHD- BECAUSE YOU are just on freaking auto pilot.”

And then this thought can turn into a meaner voice. It says, “Just who in the HECK do you think you are? People think you have your crap together and YOU DO NOT. You can’t even get your parents called back.”

What a mean thought. 

So I put the thought on the shelf. And I did what I do when I feel overwhelmed–I put my phone down, stopped doing chores or thinking about chores, and snuggled up to Aliana, to remind myself of why I do what I do. 

And after that, I just did the next thing, and reminded myself to practice self-compassion sometimes for when I fall short. Which is like, all the freaking time. 

And even though I didn’t grow up in a single parent household, I paused that night to think about the millions of single mamas and single daddies in this world who just somehow miraculously parent their children BY THEMSELVES. They may have their moments where they feel truly overwhelmed. Where they pause and think, “Geesh, it would be nice to have a partner to help me do the dishes. It would be nice to have someone stay at home with the little ones while I go for a quick walk and get some fresh air. It would be nice to have a partner around so that I didn’t have to experience my child’s emotional meltdown or temper tantrum ALONE.”

There are MILLIONS of single parents going through that. Right now. Every second. And they just put on the game face and are brave and keep going.

So I’m not alone in the struggle. My struggle is universal in some ways–by single parents and those who are not single parents. My struggle is simply this: I’ve got a lot of crap on my plate, and I’m doing the best I can. While I do the best I can, I’m going to work on being still so that I can love those who need my love. Being still means to cut out the “I’m so busy” crap, and making time to just BE. 

You can do it. I can do it. We can do it. We can do hard things. 

Your Children are not your Children

My mom was born in her grandparents’ home in the cold of winter on January 14th, 1939. Her mom, Ruth, was a homemaker, and her father, Clayton, was a farmer and Mennonite pastor. They named her Grace Elaine. 

This is the home/farm where she grew up:   
She was the first born of three children, and the only girl, but was not spoiled in any way shape or form. Those Mennonite grandparents of mine were too busy thinking about how to put a meal on the table and sew their own clothes and milk cows and crap. 

Here’s a photo of my mama and her cousins when she was younger. My mom is in the center, with her hands up by her mouth. Her younger brother, Elson, is in the front, putting God knows what into his mouth. 

 

When I asked her to describe her childhood, she said the following, “We had good, simple food and were never hungry because we had cows my parents milked and food from the garden which was canned in the summer. We kept potatoes and apples in the basement during the winter.  

We had chickens who laid eggs which we needed to gather. Sometimes we bought groceries from a huckster, a man with a truck which had shelves of food. ”

I have no idea what the hell a huckster is. 

Anyways, my mom was a good girl. She pretty much did what her parents wanted her to do. Despite that fact, they SENT HER AWAY to Mennonite boarding school–a private, Mennonite high school that was located two hours from home. I guess they just wanted to make sure she was a hundred percent Mennonite a hundred percent of the time. 

And she pretty much was. She sewed, read the Bible, sang hymns, cooked awesome food, and even wore a covering on her head. She was beautiful, but concealed her beauty in order not to be vain. That was the “Mennonite way” during that time.

My mom was a unique mother. She became an ordained minister when I was in the third grade. (More on that here, if you’re curious.She was extremely matter of fact all of the time, as well as logical and honest. When I was around seven years old, she sat me down and talked to me about menstruation. I was like, “This sucks, and why the heck are you telling me about this because I’m freaking seven years old??!!” 

Her reply, “Because it’s going to happen someday, and you need to be informed.” Such a Grace answer. 

She bought my brother and me a book about body parts and bodies changing. When she saw us reading it, she said, “Let me know if you have any questions. It’s okay to talk about the book.” We were like, “Um, no,” and quickly put the book away in embarrassment. 

She believed in rules and following them, but definitely picked her battles carefully. If she said, “If you do that one more time, you will get spanked,” she meant it. 

For whatever reason, she neither encouraged nor discouraged us from believing in Santa or the Easter Bunny. My theory is that she could not tell a lie. Ever. She was like freaking George Washington, for God’s sake. 

She rarely showed emotion, and was often even-keeled–the opposite of my dad. However, when she lost her brother to cancer, I remember seeing her tears. She says, “My saddest time was when my brother Elson died from a four year battle with cancer. Since he was 18 months younger than I, I felt he was part of me. I had so many tears even though we lived hundreds of miles apart for many years. Even a long time after the funeral I was surprised that when I looked into a mirror I felt like crying. That has never happened before or since.”

That’s what cancer does, people. It’s devastating. 

My mom continued to parent me into my adulthood. The first time my exhusband and I separated prior to my divorce, that woman sent me a freaking Bible verse every.stinking.day through email. Every morning I knew I would have a piece of encouragement in my inbox when I woke up. 

When I was in the midst of grieving the death of my marriage, I literally could not get out of my bed one day. The tears flowed from my eyes to the point that my eyeballs were swollen and I couldn’t see. My mom stayed with me. She baked me homemade bread. She prayed. She told me she envisioned me like a beautiful flower who was about to blossom, but I had been covered with dirt for so long and I was finally reaching out of the soil. She saw my potential before I did.

I wanted to be my mom. She’s just that kind of strong woman I was longing to be. 

So right after I gave birth to my own daughter, I started to breastfeed. It was very challenging for me on many levels. I went back to work when Aliana was eight weeks, my marriage was continuing to crumble, and I was trying to do everything perfect. I put tremendous amounts of pressure on myself, and I was an  emotional post-partum wreck. 

I decided to see a lactation consultant. 

When I was sitting in the consultant’s office, feeling overwhelmed, I said, “My mom nursed me until I was two years old! I know I can do this. I just don’t get it.”

The consultant looked at me and said, “You are referring to your mom a lot, and that’s okay. Could it be, though, that you are a different kind of mother?”

Ugh. When the truth stares you in the face, it’s often hard to hear, but necessary.

I realized in that moment that I would never be my mother, and I would need to accept that. The truth was, I was a working mom, whereas my mom stayed home with us until I went to school. The truth was, I was in an unhealthy marriage that was falling apart and I had minimal support in my child rearing, whereas my mom had the support of my dad. The truth was… I was NOT my mother. 

Not only were our circumstances different, but our personalities are very different as well. My mom is shy, and I’m a social butterfly. My mom is graceful under pressure, whereas I get emotional. My mom is the best cook I know, I am not. My mom is a minister, and I MOST DEFINITELY am not. 

The educator in me wants to draw a Venn Diagram for you to explicitly show you our similarities and differences, but it’s getting late, and I don’t have time for that, and neither do you. 

What I will say is this: Parenting is hard. I am thankful I had good parents. I am also trusting in the fact that although I am very different than my mother, that I am designed to parent my daughter. 

And I know that my daughter is not me either. It can be difficult to accept that our children are not going to be us or be exactly who we want them to be. 

This quote from Kahlil Gibran (one of my heroes), sums it up:

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts, 

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, 

which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, 

but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”

I love you, mom. ❤️

Hitch Hikers and Family Love

When I was in first grade, I hitch hiked for the first time. 

My family and I were on our way to a very important event–the State Spelling Bee competition. My brother, Christopher, was in the fifth grade and had just won the Howard County Spelling Bee. He now had to represent our county in the BIG state spelling bee competition in BIG Indianapolis. This, in no uncertain terms, was a BIG deal. 

So there we were, our little family of four, cruising down highway 31 south to the big city of Indianapolis, when our Oldsmobile  suddenly started to sloooooow down. My dad instinctively pulled to the side of the road. The atmosphere in the car was tense. Dad was visibly pissed. Mom was visibly worried.  Dad attempted to restart the car to no avail. 

My brother, Christopher, was in the back seat with ginormous headphones on, listening to a casette tape of God only knows what, while trying to remain in a zenlike state; but I knew he was very preoccupied. I mean, a lot was riding on the line here. If we didn’t make it to Indianapolis in time for the Spelling Bee, HE WOULD BE LETTING ALL OF HOWARD COUNTY DOWN. After listening to my questions about what was going to happen and hearing my mom sigh in disappointment, my dad was finally like, “Hey you guys! I’m gonna get out and do what I do best–start moving around.” 

I remember peering at him through the window, watching him stand there with his thumb up in the air. I remember wondering what would come of this and who would be either dumb or kind or scary enough to pick us up. I didn’t have to wonder long, though, when a man wearing dark shades and smoking a cigarette pulled up to us on the side of the road. 

My dad chatted with him for a minute, and then my dad nodded to all of us to get in the man’s car. We were all freaked out, but it was the only plan we had, so we were sticking to it. I remember him smoking his cig with the windows down as we blazed down the highway in his hot car. This man “got it.” He understood the Spelling Bee was a big freaking deal. He sped his way all the way to Indy and drove us up to the doors of the humongous building where the state spelling bee was taking place. We were late–but not too late. We hustled Christopher into the building and he got up onto stage. 

I sat in the back of the dark auditorium, trying to recover from the craziness of the day, while listening to children spell words into the microphone in front of some very austere judges. I looked over at my parents every time my brother took the mic to spell a hard word. They had love and faith and concern all wrapped up brightly in their eyes. In that moment, my little first grade brain was able to process that my family had our backs. No matter what kind of crap would hit the fan, they would be there for my brother and me. 

And I feel thankful to still feel this way. My parents are a little austere at times–especially my mom. I mean, she was raised Mennonite, for crying out loud so it makes sense that she is that way. But they have always listened to me and been there for me. I feel grateful–VERY grateful–that they let me and Aliana come and live with them for the three and a half months following my divorce. We drove each other a little batty at the time. My mom would yell at me in the middle of the night to make sure I “jiggled the handle on the toilet” if I got up to use the bathroom. My dad drove me a little crazy with his long stories about random people who had no bearing on my life. And both of them, for some reason, kept telling me I needed to drink green tea at the time, which for some reason annoyed me.

And I’m sure I drove them bananas with my strange music and texting habits and sudden tearful outbursts. But they knew that I was doing the best I could. And I knew they were proud of me for doing my best. 

Sometimes we are afraid others are going to judge us, when all they want to do is love us. For a long time, I was afraid to show my parents who I really was. I was afraid I wouldn’t live up to their expectations for  me.  When my world began to shatter in my divorce, I came to the realization that the people who wanted to be there for me needed transparency from me

Sometimes we have to be honest about our reality and our pain and how messy our lives are with those who REALLY love us. Because only then can we get the support we need. I learned to talk about all the crap I had been through with my parents, even though it felt WEIRD to say everything to them. I hadn’t wanted them to know I had made mistakes. But they really NEEDED to know it so they could support me in my next steps. 

My brother lost the spelling bee that day, but he went back to the state competition two additional times. He was truly a champion speller. 

We love you, Mom and Dad. Thank you for always having our backs. And for teaching us to hitch hike. ❤️

(My family and I, circa 1999, the day I graduated from college.) 

I Can’t Think of a Title, so this is my Title

From the time I was five years old, I was on the nerd fast track. 

It started out in kindergarten when I was placed in a program called KEY. I was trying to remember, for a moment, what the acronym “KEY” stood for, but then I realized I don’t actually care enough to figure it out. 😳

So anyways, we “KEY kids” were clustered together in a class throughout elementary school. Because I was in this cluster, when I entered high school my guidance counselor continued to place me in all the advanced placement courses I could possibly take.

The problem was…I began to discover I wasn’t actually a REAL “KEY” kid. I was a fake one–an oily, washed up, poser of a nerd.  I certainly looked nerdy. I certainly acted nerdy. But I never really had the brain of a true KEY kid–which I think looked like this: 

  

Whereas my brain looked like this:

  
So, as you can imagine, when I began to take classes like advanced placement chemistry and pre-calculus or even advanced placement economics–I couldn’t keep up with the true KEY kids’ brains. My brain just couldn’t learn and comprehend the material fast enough.

I wasn’t destined for true KEY greatness. But I kinda decided I didn’t care. Because I was one of those strange kids who didn’t have a competitive bone in my body. 

During my junior year of high school, I asked my guidance counselor if I could stay in my advanced literature classes, but I wanted to be taken out of the AP science and math ones.  I was tired of pretending to be a real KEY kid.  I said, “I want to go to ‘regular biology’ and ‘regular chemistry.'”

But…

before I had that epiphany to get myself out of KEY math and science, I SUFFERED through the first semester of precalculus my junior year.

I was placed in the class of a teacher I’ll call Mr. Dorian. Mr. Dorian reminded me of the McDonalds land character, Grimace–the big, purple guy who was always smiling. So Mr. Dorian was like that guy except for he didn’t smile. So I guess you would say he was a mean Grimace. 

  
The weird thing, though, was that he was actually nice to me. I knew no one in that class. Everyday, I came in, listened to the boring lecture, asked a million questions since I never understood the lecture, and then would do my work. There were seniors in my class who were smart, but seemed to bother Mr. Dorian. They didn’t pay attention to his lectures and would goof off in the back of the room. Mr. Dorian would vacillate between ignoring them and giving them ridiculously stern consequences.

I felt uncomfortable in his classroom. I felt like he had made me into “the teacher’s pet” yet I could never please him, since I had no freaking clue HOW to do precalculus.

Meanwhile, several of my closest friends were across the hallway during the same class period doing the same precalculus class–except for they were with my another math teacher who I adored named Mr. Cordell.

Mr. Cordell was the opposite of Mr. Dorian. He knew how to relate to kids. He was approachable and made us laugh. He was kind of like Ronald McDonald. 

And Ronald McDonald is much more popular than Grimace. 

Every day, I walked out of Mr. Dorian’s class when the bell rang, and would catch my friends across the hallway, leaving Mr. Cordell’s class, with smiles on their faces. They were happier than me because they had Mr. Cordell, right? That had to be it. Mr. Cordell made learning fun.  And I wanted to have Mr. Cordell, too, damnit! 

I made an appointment with my guidance counselor, Mr. Kammeyer.

“Mr. Kammeyer,” I nervously stammered. “Um, I was wondering if you could change my schedule and if I could be in the same exact class I’m in now, but just with a different teacher.”

“Why?” Mr. Kammeyer asked me.

As I started to rationalize to him that all my friends were in this other class and how Ronald McDonald’s teaching style was better suited for me, I could see him looking at me sideways with one eyebrow raised. He wasn’t buying what I was selling.

Mr. Kammeyer turned to me and said, “Okay, Emily. I’ll make the change. But only on one condition. You have to go to Mr. Dorian and tell him that you asked to be changed to Mr. Cordell and why.”

This is the kind of stuff that makes me shake in my boots. Confrontation. Telling someone you aren’t choosing him. Awkward conversations that you know will be awkward no matter how you say it. 

But, I believed I had to do it in order to save my precalculus ass.

And, I don’t remember how it went down exactly, since my nervousness and anxiety was on overdrive during the 5 second conversation with Grimace, but it happened something like this. 

I ran over to Grimace while he was standing in the hallway monitoring students during a passing period. 

“Mr. Dorian, I just wanted to let you know that I’m not going to be in your class anymore. I asked to be changed over to Mr. Cordell because I am more comfortable being in his class.”

He looked at me. And for the first time, I got the stern version of Grimace, looking back at me. There was no smile. He looked very annoyed. And maybe even hurt. 

(As a teacher now, myself, I understand how he felt. If a student were to come to me and tell me he didn’t want to be in my class anymore, I would feel rejected and confused. I would want answers. It would be difficult to not take it personally, because I care about my craft and my students).

But before he could say anything else to me, I ran away. Like, I freaking bolted down that hallway at Kokomo High School as fast as my scrawny, nerdy legs could go, and ran into my next period class. 

I felt like a piece of sh*t. Like diarrhea sh*t. Not the good kind of sh*t, if there is such a thing. And, I didn’t feel “free,” after changing over to Mr. Cordell like I thought I might. I didn’t feel one ounce better, in fact, even as I was sitting in his happy Ronald McDonald class with my friends. I realized that my unhappiness in precalculus had nothing to do with who my teacher was–it had to do with the fact that I simply could not do precalculus. 

I finished that semester of precalculus, and got by with a B-. I dropped the class, because I finally realized I just didn’t have that math brain that could do hard math things. 

But I still think about what Mr. Kammeyer asked me to do and why he asked me to do it. He wanted me to learn what it meant to be held accountable for my actions. And in this day and age where we have so much emailing and texting and snapchatting and messaging and other ways that we hide behind this little computer that we call our phones–THIS is a lost art. 

Telling someone your truth–your story–to his or her face is HARD

It feels so much easier to not be seen.  Being seen equates to being vulnerable and that’s scary

But our lives don’t occur in this box we call a telephone. We come to life in the real world. The real world is where we live and talk and think and communicate with other people. The real world is where we develop integrity in our interactions with others. The real world is messy. There’s no delete button or backspace. But it’s real. 

And that’s a notion I hold close to my heart. 

I Grew Up Mennonite 😱

I grew up Mennonite. 

Some of you may be shocked. Some of you may think that means I used to look like this: 

 

But in fact, I didn’t.  I didn’t wear a covering. (Except for the one time my cousins and I found a box of my grandma’s coverings after she died and tried them on, just to be funny.) I didn’t dress plainly. I didn’t wear dresses as a way of life. I didn’t speak Pennsylvania Dutch, (though my mom’s parents did). We drove cars–and they weren’t dark colored, either. 

Truth be told, there are around forty different Mennonite groups in the United States alone, and they are each unique. To give you an idea of my Mennonite church’s philosophies, my mom was an ordained minister in the church. So, my church would have been on the “liberal end” of the spectrum, since they ordained women.

But when I was in high school, the idea of revealing to people around me that I was a Mennonite scared the holy crap out of me. It just felt so… embarrassing. 😮 (Isn’t that awful I was embarrassed about my own faith?) I was afraid that people would box me into a stereotype that I didn’t want to be a part of. I was afraid people would think I was conservative and close minded. I was afraid others would think I was wearing a covering in secret. (The horror!) I was afraid that I wouldn’t get invited to hang out with people because they would assume I was so different from them. 

When I arrived to college, things changed. That’s because I went to a Mennonite college–Goshen College–ever heard of it? Suddenly I was surrounded by Mennos. I didn’t think about how “different” I was anymore. It was a stark contrast for me from high school.

Fast forward to the present. I don’t identify myself as a Mennonite today. The irony of this is that I now ENJOY telling people I used to be Mennonite. I love shocking them while simultaneously informing them that there are so many different kinds of Mennonites, and that my mom was even a Mennonite pastor. 

The other day, I went with two friends of mine into the local Ten Thousand Villages store. Ten Thousand Villages is associated with the Mennonite Central Committee. When I walked into the store, I went up to the people who volunteer in the store and told them “I was one of them.” 

They looked at me strangely, and I said, “You are my people. I’m Mennonite… Er, I mean I was Mennonite.”

They continued to look at me strangely and told me they weren’t Mennonite, although I was correct in my assumption that the store is affiliated with the Mennonite church. 

What I’ve realized is that as I’ve matured into an adult, I finally have embraced that which is different about me. And let me tell you folks, that is one of the keys to happiness. Each of us were born to stand out and tell our stories. That is the only reason I am able to write a blog–because I know that being a weirdo is okay. (Not that Mennonites are weirdos–I’m just talking about myself IN GENERAL. I’m a weirdo.)

Quote from Menno Simons, founder of the Mennonite church:

  

And I’m very appreciative of the foundation paved in my heart by the Mennonite church. I learned from Mennonites about what it means to live out one’s faith by helping those less fortunate and the courage that comes with choosing peace and forgiveness over war and resentment. 

I ❤️ you, Mennos.